Multifarious dilemmas

Two years into its five-year term, Sri Lanka’s coalition government led by President Maithipala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is afflicted by chronic disunity; contradictions in domestic and foreign policies; and a marked inability to fulfill election promises.

Given its multifarious dilemmas and the inaction these have led to, it no wonder that the government, which came into power in January 2015 promising “Yahapalanaya” or “Good Governance”, is reluctant to hold provincial and local bodies elections.

Dithering over Karunanayake

After much dilly dallying, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe  persuaded  his party man and Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake to resign from the Council of Ministers following exposure of his controversial financial dealings with Arjun Aloysius, a central figure in the multi-billion rupee Central Bank bonds scam, when he was Finance Minister in 2015.

But almost immediately after Karunanayake resigned, it became apparent that a section of the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself, is making efforts to re-instate him in the Foreign Ministry when the dust settles down. It is rumored that whoever becomes Foreign Minister, whether it is Tilak Marapana or Sagala Ratnayake, will only be a temporary tenant at the Foreign Ministry.

Ministers like Rajitha Senaratne and Harsha de Silva have openly criticized the way Karunanayake was questioned by the State Counsel in the Presidential Commission probing the bond scam. They accused the Attorney General of soft pedaling corruption cases against Joint Opposition leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, hinting at a link between the top law officer of the government and the powerful former President who is trying to come back.

Harsha de Silva wanted to know from the Attorney General as to why his department has not taken up the 87 cases filed against Rajapaksa, his family and cohorts.

It is reported that Karunanayake resigned from the ministerial post upon the promise that he will be reinstated once his name is cleared. The expectation is that the reinstatement will take place in the not too distant future.

Political Fallout  

The Karunanayake issue and the bid for his rehabilitation have added to the existing discomfiture of President Maithripala Sirisena. MPs of his faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had been keen to oust Karunanayake. The exposes about his links with the bond scam were going to extract a heavy price in the coming Provincial Council and local body elections, they feared. But Sirisena had to work hard to persuade Wickremesinghe to get Karunanayake to resign. It was only because of the fear of cross-voting leading to the passing of the motion of no confidence that Wickremesinghe decided to seek Karunanayake’s resignation. Therefore, the UNP’s wish to bring back Karunanayake is unlikely to go down well Sirisena’s followers and Sirisena himself.

Sirisena is bound to be happy with the UNP’s campaign to get the Attorney General to pursue the 87 cases against his rival Rajapaksa and his cohorts. But ironically, members of his faction, barring a few genuine loyalists, may not like it as they want Sirisena to jettison the alliance with the UNP and join hands with the Rajapaksa faction to form an SLFP-led government.

The pressure on Sirisena to leave the alliance was so high some months ago, that he had to plead with his faction members to give him time till December 31 to sort out issues with the UNP.

Underlying Rift With UNP

Sirisena faction SLFP MPs and ministers are complaining that the UNP neither consults them on policy matters nor gives them adequate powers to work for their constituencies and gain political support.

In fact, Sirisena himself feels left out of economic decision making. To correct the anomaly, he recently appointed a National Economic Council under his stewardship to set out policy guidelines for the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management which is under the Prime Minister.

The President was worried over the political consequences of the Prime Minister’s handling of certain economic issues such as the Central Bank scam and the Hambantota port deal with China.

On the Hambantota port, two agreements have been signed so far, one in December 2016 and the other in July this year. But seeing opposition to the deal within and outside the government, the President said that there could be further amendments. But this had the Prime Minister clarifying that there could be no amendments without China’s consent.

Following the threat by the Joint Opposition to annul the Hambantota port deal if it came to power, the Minister of Justice, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, declared that he would rest until the port is brought completely under the control of the Sri Lankan government. This made a mockery of the signed deal which gave the Chinese company, CMPort, 70% stake in the port for 99 years.

The Justice Minister’s statement has led to a flurry of condemnations from those loyal to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Ministers Rajitha Senaratne and Harsha de Silva condemned the Justice Minister for breaking the norm of the cabinet’s collective responsibility for decisions taken in it.

Constitutional Conundrum

Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s stance on issues have been bringing out another problem plaguing the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, which is lack of a common policy on key issues facing the country. While Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are at least verbally committed to rewriting the country’s constitution to give greater autonomy to the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and his ilk identified as “Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists” are opposed to any such change in the constitution. In this matter, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe talks the language of the Joint Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

To press his case, and also build up his own career as a Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist leader in his own right, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe got the three Buddhist High Priests called the “Mahanayakes” to issue a statement saying that a constitutional change is not needed. This made President Sirisena issue a statement saying that no new constitution will be finalized without the express approval of the “Mahanayakes”.

Tamils Getting Alienated

But such statements from the highest in the land, are alienating the Tamils whose overwhelming support had been an important factor in Sirisena’s election to the Presidency in January 2015.

Sri Lanka’s top-most Tamil party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has been the most “loyal” opposition in the history of Sri Lanka, propping up the government in sticky situations. And yet, the President and the Prime Minister have been moving at a snail’s pace on constitutional change to TNA’s dismay.

Proposals for constitutional change are stuck in the Steering Committee chaired by the Prime Minister. Members of the committee from Sirisena’s faction also show no enthusiasm about taking decisions.

Frustrated Tamils are now seen to be moving towards radical Tamil and anti-TNA leaders like Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran.

Electoral Reforms Stuck

While constitutional change is of interest mainly to the Tamils who have been seeking autonomy within Sri Lanka since 1948, electoral reforms are of interest  to the majority Sinhalese community as well.

But electoral reforms are caught up in the controversial demands of the minorities and the smaller parties for a better deal. While the government and the Sinhalese majoritarian parties want to return to the First Past the Post System in a major way, parties of the minority Tamils, Muslims and Indian-Origin Tamils, want less of the First Past the Post System and more of the Proportional Representation System. The majority and minority communities are also divided on the delimitation of electorates or constituencies.

Postponing Elections

While such controversies are only to be expected in an ethnically divided society, what is more worrying is the government’s using these to indefinitely postpone the long delayed elections to the local bodies and the Provincial elections ,the latter  due in September-October this year.

Recently, the government raised a storm by notifying a bill to amend the election law to give it power to postpone provincial elections. Though this was a “cabinet” decision, top leaders of the Sirisena faction of the SLFP as well as allies like the TNA, have condemned it. The Joint Opposition has, of course, mocked it as a sign of the “Good Governance” government’s inability to face the people in an election.

Sluggish Economy

The government’s inability to face elections is not only due to policy confusion but also to a lack of coordinated administrative action or effective implementation of decisions. Trade union actions and strikes have become commonplace, disrupting public services and causing annoyance to the common man.

Investments, both domestic and foreign, are in the doldrums. Whatever comes is in the hotels and luxury apartments sectors. The country continues to depend for its foreign exchange on remittances of workers in the Middle East; the garment sector; and loans from external financial institutions which only add to the already high national indebtedness.

State spending on infrastructure has virtually ceased because of the non-availability of funds. Proposals for foreign investment in public-private participation ventures are stymied for want of a will to implement. The prevailing confusion over the Hambantota port deal is only a symptom of a general malaise affecting the entire administration of the country. (South Asian Monitor)

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